Ask an Expert: Why do teenagers self-harm and how can we help?

My son started cutting himself this week. He cut his upper arm on purpose. I took him to the doctor as I’ve heard of this happening before to other kids and it doesn’t surprise me that he did it because of his behaviour in the past. But I really would like to understand why they do that ? He recently had a split with his girlfriend. He was distraught and we did all we could to talk and hug etc, but he still went to his room and did this. Luckily he came out and told us and it had nothing to do with a fight with us as parents. It was completely over his girlfriend … and god give me strength! I tell you, if I’d have known how hard teenagers were, I really don’t think I would have had kids, and that’s how I feel this week!

There is no simple answer for why some people choose to self-harm (SH). Many people report that SH is a way to release emotional pain via a physical injury, where they create (and control) something tangible to help them express and manage their emotions. The influence of culture, both traditional and popular, and the media’s portrayal of SH influences people’s choices to deliberately harm themselves. Piercing and some other body modifications can be seen as SH by some.

An important distinction is that self-harm can be non-suicidal, SH doesn’t necessarily mean that the person wants to die. It also isn’t just a ‘cry for help’ or attention.  I find it useful to speak directly but without judgement to kids who SH to explore what they are attempting to express when they SH. By building their capacity to understand and express their emotions and then providing a menu of alternative coping strategies, kids can make different choices about the way they deal with the emotional and chemical storm of their teenage worlds.

Identify if this was a single, isolated incident with your son.  It’s really great that he could show his emotions to you, maintain that connection and build the conversation, ask him about his choice to cut and how it felt, if it helped and if there are other ways you could help him through the break-up/issue. Many cutters feel guilt and shame after cutting which adds to their distress, which is why the role of alternative strategies is very useful. A safety plan or agreement is also a good idea to negotiate.

Parenting can be a tough road, but not travelling down it because there are potholes and rough bits would mean you’d never appreciate the smooth sections! Hang in there and keep communicating!

Jocelyn Brewer, psychologist, school counsellor and technology and social media expert,


How to help teens who self harm

Photo Credit: Nina J. G. via Compfight cc

1. I am very concerned to learn that teenage girls who are unhappy and finding life difficult may show their unhappiness by cutting themselves.  I know of three young women, including my granddaughter, who have done this in the past few months.  Can you please explain why they do it and how we can help them to resolve their troubles in a more constructive way?

2. What is the best way to help a young person who you believe is self-harming ie cutting?

Cutting and other types of deliberate self-harm are usually signs of mental health difficulties including depression and/or anxiety. In general, in all the clients I have seen (particularly adolescent girls), self-harm is not ‘attention-seeking’ as some often think it is, i.e. young people do not self-harm to ‘be like their friends’ or to ‘get noticed more at home’. In fact, most adolescents who self-harm are quite self-conscious of the scars and often go to extreme measures to hide them.

Self-harm often occurs because these adolescents have difficulty managing intense emotions and use cutting as a coping mechanism. It is often described that the physical pain is a distraction from the emotional pain. It is likely that a young person who is self-harming needs assistance with understanding and dealing with their emotions.

You can support the young person in this by encouraging open and honest discussions, discussing your own feelings (both positive and negative) or even encouraging activities to help with letting out emotions (art, music, keeping a journal, sport etc). But it is also important for the young person to be able to access professional assistance in this regard. Speaking with your GP about potential options is your best first option, and they can recommend a number of mental health professionals who can assist you and the young person.

For immediate assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or talk to your local GP, health professional or someone you trust.

Stefanie Schwartz, Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist,


Our Ask an Expert Week panelists are all qualified professionals in their field. However, advice given on The Kids Are All Right website is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional counselling or psychological care, medical care and diagnosis.


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  1. “I tell you, if I’d have known how hard teenagers were, I really don’t think I would have had kids, and that’s how I feel this week!” – you are not alone. I too have days and weeks when I feel like this, when the uphill battle seems like it will never end… I also have good moments, fun and laughter with my teen, although not as often as we used to. I try very hard to remember all the great stuff and magic of her childhood – and remind myself how wonderful she was/IS ! I also cling tight to the knowledge that we will make it through this turbulent period of adolescence, and (hopefully) have a close bond as adults. Hang in there!

  2. If only I had read this post 4 years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of heart ache and recriminations about what I had done wrong as a Mom. For me, the hardest part was trying to understand why K had done this to herself. I realise now that it was how she felt she could deal with what was going on in her head but it was extremely upsetting at the time especially as it was done in secret for so long before we found out. I thought that we had good avenues of communication – little did I realise how wrong I was.
    I totally agree with Jodi and also went through stages of wondering if I had known what I know now, whether I would have had a child or not. I think that I probably wouldn’t have had any children – having said that, she is here and doing so well now and I wouldn’t swop her for anything. She is hoping to join the police force next year and become a contributing member of society so I figure we must have done something right along the way.
    Sending heaps of love, hugs and positive energy your way !



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